Guest Review by the imitable Sarah Olivares
The Jungle Book is a wonderfully fun and imaginative adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic that, until it opened, I feared would be a cold and unambitious reworking of one of Disney’s more underrated animated features.
The past few years have seen Disney classics Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty remade into confectionery and admittedly enjoyable live-action productions, with many more in the pipeline. Such a trend has some fans of the classics intrigued and excited, given technological advances in cinematic story-telling since these tales were first brought to the big screen. Others are a little uneasy, having all too often suffered through bungled bastardizations of childhood favorites (I’m looking at you, Last Airbender), and having silently prayed for honest and dedicated attempts to bring these stories into the 21st century year after year.
For this reason, I was a little put off by the animated look of director Jon Favreau’s “live action” remake when I saw the trailer, certain it would produce a glaring inauthenticity that even children would have no trouble spotting. Every location and animal character is created exclusively using CGI and motion-capture VFX, with real places and creatures used only for reference, a decision that has sapped originality and depth from other promising films, notably The Hobbit trilogy.
I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find myself totally engrossed in the visual experience of The Jungle Book, made all the more impressive by 3D done right. Each individual animated character is gorgeously rendered, from Baloo’s finely-animated fluffiness to the tense, cat-like flick of Shere Khan’s right ear. These are not just cartoonish talking animals, but rich interpretations of Mowgli’s perception of them.
However, despite this attention to minute visual detail, literature buffs and animal lovers alike will notice a certain lack of due diligence in the conception of these jungle inhabitants. Neither the elephants nor the wolves appear to be the kind you normally find in a South Asian jungle. Similarly, the Baloo of Kipling’s novel is not a portly brown bear, but the noticeably different-looking (if less familiar to audiences) sloth bear, and only one of those is native to the Indian region. Hodgepodge of geographically transplanted organisms though it is, the jungle remains a fun and engaging ecosystem of vibrant characters.
Newcomer Neel Sethi is a joy to watch, portraying the young protagonist’s enthusiastic and uncomplicated experience of the jungle in a touching and sympathetic way, while also fully holding up his end of making the audience forget he was shot next to a motion-capture puppet. Mowgli’s story follows his journey of understanding his outsider status and the threat it poses, and the relationships he develops with animal companions as he tries to find his role in the only home he knows. If the animations are an accomplishment, due credit must be given the 12-year-old first-timer whose focus and authenticity gives life to these relationships.
Bill Murray and Christopher Walken bring signature influence to the beloved bear and the unsavory gigantopithecus King Louie, respectively. Both actors provide half-renditions of the original film’s musical numbers, “The Bear Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You,” providing just enough musicality to the remake to set your inner child’s heart aflutter. Idris Elba is impeccably cast as the rumbling, icy voice of Shere Khan, one of children’s literature’s most iconic villains. Solid voice performances from other A-listers including Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita N’Yongo, and Gary Shandling in his final performance complete the experience.
The Jungle Book pulls meatier themes and events from the classic novel, while still capturing the wild and whimsical imagination that made the animated feature so fun and endearing, rounding out the story’s history with another unique and universally lovable edition.